Tag Archive | theodicy

The Transfiguration of our Lord, 2015

The Transfiguration of our Lord, year B, 2015 (preached 2/15/15)

first reading:  2 Kings 2:1-12

Psalm  50:1-6

second reading:  2 Corinthians 4:3-6

gospel reading:  Mark 9:2-9

The Transfiguration

The Transfiguration

Each time I read the story of the Transfiguration, I am tempted to go straight for Peter.  Poor Peter.  James and John stay quiet, but Peter blurts out, “let’s build a monument to the occasion!”

Blurting out isn’t the only response we see here – so is wanting to build something to remember it by.  We live in a world filled with monuments to events and important people in history.  And if there was ever a moment for a monument, this was it.

Jesus doesn’t answer Peter’s request, but the answer was obviously “no,” because they are soon heading back down the mountain with orders of secrecy.

Why the secrecy?  Peter, James and John heard the voice from heaven, they saw Moses and Elijah and a transformed Jesus.  Who could keep quiet?

But again, Jesus says no – don’t share the event with anyone until “after the fact.”  Because the “glory” only comes after the fact – the fact of the crucifixion and death.

FIRST Jesus must go through suffering.  Only then, in the resurrection, will God’s glory be revealed.  No cross, no crown.  No pain, no gain.

It seems flippant to say, but its reality is disturbing, shocking, and yet ultimately just what we need.  It’s shocking and disturbing because it flies in the face of all the measures of glory that this world holds dear.  When we think of glory do we think of a beaten bloody man hanging from a cross, or the dazzling man on the mountain?

The Transfiguration was a gift that allows us to see Jesus within the great salvation story of God’s people, indeed Jesus as the END of the line – but it was not the gift – THAT gift was the cross.  The disciples wouldn’t understand this until after the resurrection.  You and I have the benefit of their experience and their witness.

We have the gift of a god who could’ve chosen to be like an earthly king, who could’ve shown us glory through a miraculous military campaign, showing power by curing the diseased, manifesting strength killing those who were weaker, or tyrants who persecuted the people.

But NO.  Our God doesn’t work that way.  Our God chose a different path than the path we expect from the powerful and the glorious.

Our God chose to turn the meaning of strength and power and glory upside down.

A god who operates through human standards of success and failure, of joy and pain, is not a god I can relate to when my life is awful.  A god whose definition of glory equals that of ours, where winning is everything, can’t possibly understand me in my failure.  A god who defines strength and weakness by who can overpower and who is crushed, cannot possibly be present for me when I’m overcome and lost in pain.

God looked at all that and said, “No.  I choose a better way.”

It may not always feel like God chose the better way – like when we want to be rescued from a bad situation, or when we or those we love suffer – but it is ultimately the way that saves us.

God transfigures Jesus on that mountain, but God transfigures the whole structure of human valuing and judging, and in the process transfigures you and me.

This is why we can’t have Christmas without Easter, or Easter without Good Friday.

The crown without the cross, the gain without the pain, might do a thing or two to help us “feel” better in the here and now, but they do nothing to help us in the real struggles, the real pain, the real suffering in life – they would only give us a fairytale, where the only acceptable endings are happy ones.  But what happens to us then when our endings aren’t happy?

If God chose the crown without the cross, the gain without the pain, then God would have NOTHING to offer us, NOTHING to give us that the world can’t give.

For me, that god would be a waste of time.  Everyone loves a winner, but you find out who your true friends are when you lose, when you’re in pain, when you’re weak.  And THIS is where God chooses to be with you and me.

This is the whole point of the secrecy of the Transfiguration.  Jesus “ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen,” because the cross HAD to come first.

Before we could worship Christ we had to put him to death, so that God could bring him back to life and show us that our pitiful human demonstration of power stands NO chance against the TRUE glory of God.

Jesus tells them that all these “great” events – the healings, the teachings, the miracles, and the Transfiguration – need to be seen through the lens of the cross.  Anything less would lead us to worship a god just like ourselves.  We need more.  And Jesus gives us more.

Jesus gives us God who KNOWS our pain, who is WITH US in suffering, who HOLDS us in our struggles and LIFTS us when we fall.  Jesus is the shoulder to cry on, the strength against which we can scream in our desperate hours.  To what other god could we ever direct our anger and hate?  Any other god would crush dissent and doubt, but Jesus doesn’t – he loves us even IN them.

Any other god would want only the best and the brightest as followers, but Jesus calls the weak and sinful and sick and make us bright through HIS work.

Our weakness, our suffering, our doubts, our sinfulness – all those things are transfigured through Jesus’ sacrifice and love.

It doesn’t mean they go away, what it does mean is that even in the midst of them we have value to God, we are precious to God – and loved by God for all eternity.

Not always what we want, not always what we expect – but always what we ultimately need.  Thanks be to God.



The Holy Innocents, Martyrs

The Holy Innocents, Martyrs, ABC, 2014 (preached December 28, 2014)

first reading:  Jeremiah 31:15-17

Psalm:  124

second reading:  1 Peter 4:12-19

gospel reading:  Matthew 2:13-18

***Note:  I was substitute preaching for a colleague at a neighboring congregation, so I was not preaching to my regular folks.  Also, the commemoration of the Holy Innocents is December 28th, and when Dec. 28th falls on a Sunday its appointed readings take precedence over the regular ones for the first Sunday of Christmas.

What a depressing day.  Right after we welcome the baby in the manger, right after we can finally sing all our favorite Christmas carols, we are confronted with the slaughter of innocent children.

This commemoration of the Church brings up all kinds of questions that are ultimately unanswerable – and way too much to deal with in one sermon.  And those questions bring up others that are equally unanswerable.  How could God allow those little children to be senselessly murdered?  How come God didn’t stop Herod?  Why do bad things happen to good people?  Why are innocent people sometimes punished while the guilty go free?

We can answer these questions in part, but not completely.  I have often said that I have a long list of questions I want to ask God when I get to heaven, and those are some of them.  There are parts that can be answered though, and it’s important that we talk about that.

Each of us has been given incredible freedom as human beings made in God’s likeness.  We are not puppets to be manipulated, we are God’s children, individuals with limited, but still amazing will and power.

The freedom that God gives us at birth is a wonderful thing.  It empowers us to shape our own future, and we have tremendous abilities and opportunities to help others.  There are countless examples of our human capacity to be kind, generous, and giving to one another.

But this freedom can also be abused.  We are given the freedom to do good, but along with that comes the freedom to act and make choices that may hurt or devastate others.

We may have countless examples of human kindness but we also unfortunately have countless examples of human cruelty.

It’s not lost on me that even as we remember the slaughter of all those innocent children by Herod, there are hundreds of parents in Pakistan who will never stop grieving their children who were murdered by religious extremists just a few weeks ago.

There are families torn apart by domestic violence, kids being bullied and degraded in schools, racism, sexism, classism, and all the other “isms” that just never seem to fade away.

All this violence and hatred I believe can be traced back to the sin of covetousness.  Envy.  Greed.  The desire for power over others – to want the power that someone else has.  Whether it’s power manifested through owning land, money, possessions, or influence over people – it’s intoxicating, it’s addictive, and it’s dangerous.

There’s a good reason that we have one or two commandments (depending on how you number them) that speak directly to coveting – wanting what someone else has.  And this was Herod’s problem.  Herod’s sin.  He had power and he didn’t want to give it up or share it.  He was even willing to slaughter children to keep it.

He saw Jesus as a threat, and since he didn’t know who or where Jesus was he just killed all the children in Jesus’ age bracket.  Nice guy.

And we read the quote from Jeremiah in Matthew that there was wailing and loud lamentation – Rachel weeping for her children, because they were no more.

If there is any value to be found in the death of the children, both then and now, we find it in the phrase, “she refused to be consoled/comforted.”  Rachel, a symbol of motherhood, a symbol of Israel, refused to accept the evil.  Too many times when we see evil, we are too content to let it happen, too content to let it win.  Either we think we have no power, or we’re too tired from fighting it.

But grief and anger are powerful.  The human spirit is powerful, and the Holy Spirit working within and through us is unstoppable.  It is part of our baptismal calling as workers in the kingdom in the name of the holy child, Jesus Christ, to stand against the Herods of the world, to refuse to be consoled, or lulled into complacency.

This commemoration of the Church also reminds us that life and death are intimately connected.  That joy and suffering exist side by side.  That Christmas and Good Friday are bound together.

It may not be a happy thing to remember.  It may not give us all those nice warm fuzzy feelings we like to have at Christmas.  But thankfully our faith goes beyond warm and fuzzy – our faith is down and dirty.  Our faith is REAL.

Our faith does not deny pain, it does not deny suffering, it does not deny evil.  Our faith denies none of those things – it CONFRONTS them.  It meets them head-on, and ultimately defeats them on the cross.

The cross itself was pain, suffering and evil – Jesus all wrapped up in and nailed to the ugly sin that is the worst of our human nature.  But the light shines in the darkness.

We look at the events of 2,000 years ago, and know that evil and death did not have the last word.  It won the battle but it did NOT win the war.  And the same is true in our day and age.

Pain, suffering, evil and death impact our lives regularly.  But it is GOD who ultimately triumphs – NOT pain, or suffering or evil or death.  They do NOT have the last word for us either.

They impact us, but they do not define us.  WE are defined by the God who journeys with us through the dark valleys.  WE are defined by the Savior who claims us in baptism and makes us his children forever.  WE are defined by a cross whose intention was cruelty and death, but whose final outcome was love and life.

THAT brothers and sisters – the life and love of Jesus for you and me, has the ABSOLUTE last word – both now and forever.



Why did God made me autism?

I was sitting in bed, browsing the internet, minding my own business, when my 14 and 11 year old daughters entered the room.  My oldest had a look of “help!” on her face.  They walked over and sat on the bed and my oldest said to her sister, “Bekah, ask Mommy what you were just asking me.”  Bekah looked a little timid, which is unusual for her, then asked,

“Mommy, why did God made me autism?” 

(This is an exact quote.  One of her many issues is that she has problems with verb tenses and sentence structure.)  I’m glad I was in bed and not standing up because I think I might have fallen over.  We had the “autism talk” with her a few months ago, and while it’s come up here and there in passing, she has not approached near this depth of thought about it, at least verbally.  I have had years to work out my own beliefs about God causing things and have even written a bit about it here, but putting all my thoughts and beliefs in words that would make sense to her left me momentarily speechless.  Yet there she was, looking at me, waiting for an answer – one of those lovely terrifying parental moments.  I took a big breath then dived in.

Here’s how it went – paraphrased of course – – –

Me:  Honey, God didn’t give you autism.  Sometimes things just happen.     B:  How come?     Me:  Well, every one of us is different right?  Some of us have brown hair, some people have blue eyes, some people are tall and some are short.  Sometimes people have special challenges too.  Sometimes a person might need a wheelchair because their legs don’t work right, or remember that girl in your dance class that only had one hand?  I know that having autism can be hard sometimes, but God didn’t give it to you, God helps you so you can be strong and work hard and be the wonderful girl you are!

B:  Did I get it in your belly?     Me:  I don’t know.  Some very smart doctors think maybe autism starts in the mommy’s belly, other smart doctors think it happens after you’re born.     B:  Oh.  Did my friends get autism in their mommy’s bellies?     Me:  We don’t know about them either.  You know there are THOUSANDS of kids and grown-ups with autism all over the world and the doctors don’t know for sure if it starts in the mommy’s bellies or happens after they’re born.  It’s the same with all those people as it is with you.

B:  Do the kids at (the other program site where they have classes for more challenged “lower functioning” kids) have autism too?     Me:  Yep.  There are all different ways people have autism.  You know there’s lots of kids at (the other site) who don’t talk right?     B:  Yes.     Me:  Well, some people with autism have a really hard time talking, and some kids like you talk really well!  But you took a long time to talk and had to work really hard, and we’re so proud of you!     B:  Yeah!

She seemed satisfied at that point and bounced away happily to play while my oldest stared at me with a look of “I can’t believe what just happened.”  She got up slowly and left the room too – then I breathed a HUGE sigh of relief that it was over.

I asked my daughter later what made her think of that original question, “Why did God made me autism?”  And she casually replied, “I don’t know.”  She has been asking more questions about God lately, but putting the two together as a “cause and effect” was a big leap.  There’s definitely a lot going on in that beautiful brain of hers.

You may completely disagree with the answer I gave my daughter about her autism.  It may give you comfort to think that God is in control of the details of our everyday lives.  But that thought has never comforted me.  For me that would make God a dispenser of pain and suffering.  I believe that God is THE loving presence who gives us strength to persevere,  carries us through our pains, comforts us in the midst of our suffering and gives us hope that we are more than the things that challenge us.

God heals our ills, God doesn’t cause them.

Theodicy (a conversation with my teenage daughter)

*originally written Jan. 16, 2014

I’m pretty sure I’ve said this before, but parenting is HARD.  Parenting a teenager is often painful.  My 14 year old daughter is sharper than a tack.  She is constantly challenging my husband and me, purposely pushing our buttons – trying to get a “rise” out of us.  She’s great at testing limits.  So I  guess she’s doing exactly what a teenager is supposed to do.

But the other night something unusual happened.  As we were finishing dinner she told my husband point blank that she wanted to talk to ME about God, not him, that she wasn’t looking for his opinion, she wanted mine.  I’m sure it pained my husband deeply not to get involved since he’s the talker of the two of us, and theological conversations are to him like chocolate is to me – can’t resist.  It might sound at first like she was being hurtful or rude to her father, but you need to understand that at this point in her life her father is also her pastor.  That’s tough.  And she is going through confirmation instruction so he is also her Sunday School teacher right now – so she hears him talk about God more than enough.  Her mom, the quiet one?  Not so much.  Because I serve another congregation, she has hardly ever heard me  preach, let alone teach a class at church.

So, I ended up having a Theodicy 101 class with my daughter after dinner.  FYI – definition – Theodicy: (from Greek theos, “god”; dikē, “justice”), explanation of why a perfectly good, almighty, and all-knowing God permits evil. The term literally means “justifying God.”

Her questions flew, fast and furious – so urgent, so important.  Why did God allow the Jews to die in the Holocaust?  If Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, then why doesn’t he raise people now?  Why do babies get sick and die?  Why didn’t God save our friends’ son who committed suicide?  Why are there people suffering and dying in Syria and I’m living in comfort and safety?

She was actually looking for answers, not a fight.  I was SO proud of her for her deep thoughtfulness, her desire to make sense out of what she is seeing in the world around her.  Yet also saddened because this is an example of how her intense thoughtfulness also contributes to her adolescent angst that keeps me up at night. Anyway, here’s the gist of what I told her, purely from my perspective, based on what I’ve learned about God and my experience of God.  And I thought I would share it with you as well.

God is not a puppeteer – we are not puppets that God manipulates.  In creation God gave us freedom – freedom to choose good or evil.  When a 12 year old boy walks into his school gym and shoots people (which happened a few days ago in New Mexico, USA), that boy is using his freedom to do evil.  God didn’t “make” him do it.  When a teacher stood in front of him, with the gun pointed at his face, and talked the boy into giving up, that teacher used his freedom to do good.

God does not cause suffering – ever.  God manifests God’s self in healing, not destroying.  God weeps over injustice.  God was there IN the gas chambers of the concentration camps, just as God is profoundly WHEREVER there is suffering – whether it be on the global scale of the Holocaust, or the small (but individually great) scale of a child growing up in an alcoholic home, a wife abused by her husband, a boy bullied at school, or the man lying in bed dying of cancer.

As Christians (as human beings really), God works through us to bring justice to the world.  We are God’s hands and feet.  It’s our calling as disciples to be advocates and workers to sow love and peace in a world of suffering and violence.  If my daughter sees suffering in Syria, it is her call to do whatever she can to end it.  It may be something as seemingly insignificant as praying, or giving part of her allowance to a relief organization, or writing  letters to our congressman or the president, but that is her part.

But, you know, we cannot understand all of God.  God is so much bigger than the human mind can comprehend.  We can know some things, but we cannot know all things.  I’m not afraid to admit my ignorance, even to my children and my parishioners.   I do not know why babies get sick and die.  I do not know why some people die in a car accident and some live.  I do not know why my other daughter has autism.  I do not know why, despite their best efforts, our friends’ son took his own life.  But I do know that God did NOT cause these things.

You may point to parts of scripture where it seems that God causes bad things to happen.  The FLOOD is probably the best example, and the whole book of Job.  My understanding of scripture is that, while it is certainly inspired by God, it was not written by God.  The writers saw events, and interpreted them through the eyes of their faith, just as we do today.  The idea that Job was tested by God, for me, is how the people around Job interpreted his situation.  Life was making no logical sense for them, so if Job’s life was spiraling out of control, God must be doing it.  I see things differently – “stuff” happens, sometimes life just plain sucks.  Bad things DO happen to good people.  Does God cause it?  I think not.  The God I know in Jesus would rather die himself then cause us to suffer.

This doesn’t mean that good cannot come from “bad” things.  I firmly believe that God, as a source of healing, can help us to find some good lesson or purpose or mission as a result of our going through suffering.  My suffering has made me a much better person, a more compassionate pastor, and an infinitely more patient wife and mother.

Still, mystery is a hard thing to sit with, so many people would rather believe that God gives us cancer, or muscular dystrophy, or autism, or allow us to be raped or abused, or that certain people must somehow “deserve” to be oppressed and victimized.  But I’ll say it again, that is not the God I’ve come to know in Jesus.

By the end of this completely unanticipated conversation, I was emotionally and cognitively spent.  My daughter seemed comforted, which was my whole intention, but I was completely drained.  Parenting an adolescent is much less about physically managing the child and much more about reinforcing values and toughing it out through the periodic, unplanned and intense conversations.

HARD stuff.  Takes me out of my comfort zone of silence.  Makes my brain hurt.  But in the end, these are the conversations that will bind us, not only as mother and daughter, but as sisters in Christ.  And they are worth the effort.